Cookbook Author Interview: Kent Whitaker: I Love A Beautiful Culinary Book Filled With Stories, Back Story And Tempting Pictures

Cookbook Author Interview: Kent Whitaker: I Love A Beautiful Culinary Book Filled With Stories, Back Story And Tempting Pictures

Is this your first cookbook?

Nope, I’m currently working on the West Virginia Hometown Cookbook. This will be the seventh title in the Hometown cook book series that I co-author with Shelia Simmons. My first cookbook was Smoke in the Mountains – The Art of Appalachian Barbecue, that was followed by Checkered Flag Cooking which was a tailgating book geared towards NASCAR and ARCA racing fans. Those were with a different publisher. I’ve also written and illustrated two books for kids. One is an early reader titled Big Mo’s Tennis Ball Hunt. It’s a seek and find book based on our golden retriever named Moses, or Big Mo. The second is a book based on the crazy number of questions that my son asked while sitting in the back seat of the car. He was often my back seat travel buddy during foodie or work trips in the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding area. It’s titled Why are the Mountains Smoky? I’ve handed a World War II culinary history book that I sold to the publisher  and recently sold a book about a World War II battleship and her crew.  That’s eleven books so far all of which are traditionally published.

Can you tell me how you were offered a contract for your book?

The first two sold on the same day. One was a cookbook – Smoke in the Mountains – and the other was the first children’s book – Why are the Mountains Smoky?  I’ve worked in journalism and sports writing for years. I’m also a chef. Somehow all of these things came together when my son dared me to enter a Food Network Emeril Live Barbecue Contest… I won! During some tapings with Food Network and Emeril one of the producers told me that he saw me as a genuine person, I told great stories and that I listened to other people when they told their stories. He said… “You should write some books!” I started putting together some notes and interviews that I had done with pit masters, barbecue chefs, mom and pop restaurant owners. All were wonderful people that I met while traveling covering NASACAR, golf or college football. I also ate a bunch of barbecue along the way. That turned into a book proposal. At the same time my young son, now older and in the Army, was asking all of these questions about trees, animals, clouds, snakes, people, places and more about the Smoky Mountain region. Suddenly I had two book proposals going. One was about mountain barbecue and the people behind the food and the other was a Q&A kid’s book about the Smoky Mountain region. I sent both proposals off to a few publishers. I was offered a contract for each book on the same day by two different publishers. It sounds easy but before that I had my fair share of rejections on other projects.

Did you have an agent? No, however, I do have a friend who is married to a well known writer. She is also his editor. They immediately gave me advice on what to expect when looking at a contract. One of my brothers works in Nashville and he put me in contact with a few artists and I was able to ask some basic questions about their contracts. After signing with the two different publishers and after the first two books came out I started working with a PR firm that represented me in several national spokesperson opportunities such as Purina, Pabst Blue Ribbon and others.

If you didn’t have an agent, did you negotiate your own contract?

Yes, I negotiated my own contract. Thankfully I had researched several things, read up in magazines, books and online and felt comfortable enough to read through it and understand what I was reading. I advise anyone who is offered a contract to read it then set it down and go eat a meal, drink a cold beverage with a buddy while watching a baseball game, mow the grass or something. Then come back and read the contact again and go from there. Don’t sign it right off the bat!

Do aspiring cookbook authors who want a traditional publisher need a food blog?

Yes and No. I think a blog, or something is needed but I don’t think it has to be food related all of the time. What is important is your voice… even in a cookbook. The blog, article, Facebook post or whatever you decide to do needs to be done on a regular basis in order to find your voice. It’s also important to do your research. People who ask me about culinary writing are often surprised about the amount of time that I put into researching recipes, people, places, food history and more. Then there is time spent on cooking, testing and the actual writing. Listing a bunch of ingredients in bullet form is easy. When you write a regular article or blog the work load is expanded and that’s a good thing.  It grows your voice.

What is your advice for an aspiring cookbook author reading this interview that wants to pursue a publisher? Do they need an agent?

It depends, an agent is important in many ways. I’ve since sold various projects with and without an agent. There are pluses to both sides. My advice is to not put all of your eggs in one basket. When you are researching agents also research publishers that accept materials directly from the writer. When you sign with an agent or a publisher you are working with a partner and it’s important to treat them as such.

Many people ask if cookbooks are dead, or dying, like other print books? Do you have any thoughts on this?

There are an amazing number of cookbooks on the market. The upside is that people eat… people LOVE to eat.  As far as electronic books compared to print books… I’m a bit old school on this. I love a beautiful culinary book filled with stories, back story and tempting pictures. I can find this in a traditional print book as well as an ebook. I prefer the printed versions. I think there is still a huge market for traditionally published books. It seems to me that for the time being the ebook market is being overwhelmed with sub-par material. That kind of goes back to finding your voice. Anyone can gather a bunch of recipes up and slap them into an ebook. How many crappy books can you purchase for $.99 cents? Eventually you want to buy something that’s quality as do most consumers. The Hometown Cookbook series is available in ebook form so I’m not bashing the industry.  I think that anyone that writes an ebook cookbook should put the same time and effort into it as if it were a print book. Make it as nice as possible. It’s still your book; why not take pride in it?

What was your biggest challenge in writing your cookbook?

The term cookbook; I hate the term cookbook, at least when it’s applied to my titles. A cookbook can be so much more than page after page of lackluster recipes.  I had a guy tell me that he was a “real writer”  and that I just wrote “cookbooks.” He had just had a short story published in a journal. That’s wonderful – good for him – but I was mad about his “real writer” remark. Here’s why. Earlier that week I had interviewed several World War Two veterans about the best chow and worst chow served up to them during the war. It was a humbling experience. These interviews were to be part of my upcoming book about World War Two rations and cooking. Earl, a World War II veteran, had taken the time to share his memories of serving meals to a PT boat crew with nothing more than SPAM, hot sauce and orange marmalade. Hearing Earl’s story was an honor. Being able to share that with others in my culinary writing is a privilege. Earl’s recipe for his PT Boat Orange Marmalade SPAM only has three ingredients but it’s more interesting to me than fifty pages of plain listed recipes with no back story.

Any thoughts you’d like to share on the marketing and sales for your cookbook?

There is NOTHING wrong with self promotion. If you are not going to do it then who will? Look for ways to promote that is not just white noise. Build your own media lists; keep track of contacts, placements of stories in the media and more. The only thing I suggest is to always be respectful of your audience and your brand. Oh, that’s something that took me a long time to realize. You and your books are your own brand!

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